Has Climate Change Become a Policy Bully?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker magazine posted a provocative article by Jonathan Franzen, entitled “Carbon Capture: Has Climate Change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” (link to http://nyr.kr/1EGzNYs for full article) in which he makes a strong argument for how the issue of climate change policy has marginalized other environmental issues – in this case, conservation, particularly related to birds.  I have noted in my previous blogs that the issue of climate change has potentially done much more than that – not only other environmental issues appear to have been brushed aside, but the much broader remit of sustainable development appears to have been affected.

One indication of that is the relatively massive amount of attention being paid to the climate change negotiations leading up to Paris later this year when compared to the negotiations for launching a comprehensive global sustainable development agenda.  The latter is due to be launched in New York in September, when all the world’s leaders will be assembling to sign off on this potentially transformative initiative.  Not only is there all too scant attention being paid to the Post-2015 Time for Action: For People and Planet, the two processes appear to be barely aware of one another, or at least, there is little, if any, recognition of the relevance of the post 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the climate negotiating process.  To give but one example: in the mandate for all countries to develop Indicative National Development Contributions (INDCs) – which is ‘climate speak’ for countries being expected to list actions and targets they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – there is NO reference made to how the development of nationally driven INDCs will take into account the Sustainable Development Goals being developed under the post 2015 process.

Yes, climate change is listed as one of the SDGs, but it has a limited focus around adaptation and makes it clear that whatever is developed is to be superseded by the results of the climate negotiations.   Should it not be the other way around?  Namely, that commitments on climate change need to be developed and implemented in the broader context of what should be complementary obligations in the post 2015 SD negotiations, where the full remit of human development, including good governance, sustainable prosperity and social equity is addressed?

As I, with Deborah Murphy, noted in a background paper prepared for the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2010 (Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012) the problem with the concept of sustainable development has, and in many cases, continues to be, its amorphous nature, at times so ill defined it is used to justify an entire litany of actions and policies that could hardly be described as sustainable.  As someone who has been steeped in the issue of climate change over 20 years – from national and regional policy development to climate risk in developing countries and the international negotiations themselves – climate change was compelling because it was so much more concrete in its remit than the work of, for example, the Commission for Sustainable Development.  In fact, I viewed climate change as the ‘concrete manifestation of sustainable development’: that actions taken to address climate change were the same sort of policies and measures that would successfully lead the transition to a more sustainable future for all.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that simply addressing climate change – in isolation from the broader story of human development – is dangerously naive.  Franzen’s article is a compelling testament to some of its (unintended no doubt) impacts on conservation.  The same could be said of its potential impact on resource development and economic growth, unless it is managed in a much more sophisticated manner than has been heretofore the case.  And if it is not, then we will see the same dynamic to the planet’s and the people’s detriment.  Simply put, there is a huge gap between multilateral processes and national actions, because the former seldom effectively integrates domestic political and economic realities.  Can that gap be closed through the development of INDCs?  It can help, but not without being much more effectively embedded in the framework of the SDGs developed under the Post 2015 development agenda.

The real contribution of the Post-2015 process is that it is seeking a transitional agenda across the full spectrum of sustainable development with concrete goals, targets and indicators.  It is a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals, but with two critical differences:  it is focused on reframing these goals in the wider remit of sustainable development and it has universal application : ALL countries will be expected to implement these goals.

The current mode of human development is causing a host of urgent issues that need to be addressed – from species loss to fresh water access to growing issues around gender, social and economic inequity and meaningful employment.  Climate change often plays a role as a critical stress agent to these other growing risks, but only focusing on climate in addressing those issues is far from any kind of comprehensive solution.  To save birds, actions must be focused on conservation, defending aboriginal rights means addressing issues related to good governance.  Yes women and the poor are more victimized by climate change, but successfully addressing climate change is hardly the core of the solution to gender inequity or poverty eradication.  And yet, all too often climate change has become the de facto proxy for sustainable development, the politically attractive home for a host of other agendas —this was evident in Copenhagen and seems to be very much the case in the path leading to Paris.   The climate change negotiations is not the forum for effectively addressing these issues: the post 2015 agenda is.

The climate change regime has made an invaluable contribution in setting the standard for elevating one aspect of sustainable development to the political fore.  There is much to be learned from that experience that can be utilized in designing and implementing the broader remit of sustainable development.   But now is the time for it to take its rightful place.  The climate change negotiations can only benefit from a broadened discussion that is informed by the integrative thinking of sustainable development. For example, mitigation could be addressed within a broader discussion of energy, land use and economic growth. Adaptation could benefit from a broader understanding of “resilient  (and not just climate resilient) development”; and measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) talks could be addressed in the context of a broader appreciation of issues related to “transparency and accountability.”  This should also help to ‘chip’ at the seemingly impenetrable wall of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities by seeking ways beyond the entirely fruitless ‘development vs environment’ paradigm.

What would all this mean?  At the international level, once an agreement has (hopefully) been hammered out in Paris, it should be formally adopted under the post 2015 SDGs and made accountable primarily in that framework.  Future work of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) should address explicit linkage issues between climate change and other SDGs, for example, relating to energy access and water access and quality, to mention but two.  At the national level, there should be an direct link developed between the further development of INDCs and their impact on the implementation of other SDGs.

In 2007, in its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC  (Sathaye et al., 2007, p. 699) states that “It is no longer a question of whether climate change policy should be understood in the context of sustainable development goals; it is a question of how.”  This blog is simply reminding us of that remit and a few hopefully helpful suggestions on how to begin making that real.  It is not intended to compromise the climate change agenda and the last thing it is intended to do is to cast aspersions on the science of climate change – far from it, it is only by addressing this issue “in the full context of sustainable development” does it have any chance of long lasting success.